Music was always important to me, and I was drawn to the art of composition early. I can remember “writing” pieces for family members to bang on pots and pans sitting in my grandmother’s living room. Needless to say, family members had limited tolerance for my early creative efforts!
I studied music, piano and composition formally, and my first career was as a professional musician. In the early 2000’s, I left that career and moved to New York to pursue trading financial markets. While that endeavor has been immensely gratifying on many levels, I felt the draw to return to music around 2017.
Return to music
First, I returned to playing the piano, and invested two long years in detailed work rebuilding my piano technique. I was fortunate to study in New York City with Edna Golandsky, the leading teacher of the Taubman technique. I found the principles of precise, correct alignment of the body to be a revelation, and my ability to draw the exact sounds I wanted from the instrument grew in leaps and bounds.
But I knew that pursuing a second (third?) career as a performing pianist did not make much sense, so, I turned my attention to composition again. Frankly, after not writing music for 15 years, my first pieces were a tentative exploration—perhaps I had forgotten everything I knew and the skills were lost to me? These fears proved unfounded. The tools and techniques were, for whatever reason, still a part of my brain, and I discovered that, in many ways, my musical language had matured during my long period in exile.
I spent a good part of a year practically in isolation, poring over works by master composers, filling notebooks with harmony and counterpoint exercises (after some extensive detective work tracking down some of Nadia Boulanger’s teaching material), and writing many small-form pieces. This work led me to re-evaluate every note I have ever written, and I came to a painful decision: I have discarded every piece of music I wrote in my previous career and am starting over with a “blank book.” I am a different person and certainly a different musician than I was. There is freedom in the blank page, and I’m very much at peace with this decision.
Why Am I Doing This?
So why am I doing this? First, I love the beauty of sound and the emotional response a piece of music can provoke in a listener. Second, I think I have something to offer, and I hope I can move the conversation about concert music forward. (Even this term is difficult: Art music, modern classical music, etc. are common labels applied to this kind of music, and none of them are adequate.)
My language incorporates perspectives from a range of historical periods and styles. Above everything else, I want my music to connect with an audience—while there is a place for abstract music, my music is not complete without that connection to a listener.
Elements of My Musical Style
What is important in my music? First, melody. In today’s world (certainly in much (not all) of “classical” music since the second World War and in popular music in the first part of the 21st century), there almost seems to be a dearth of melody. Yes, other elements—rhythm, timbre, texture—matter, but I believe this impulse to create melody is closely tied to language, and must have been at the root of whatever music early humans created.
Second, counterpoint holds an important place in ideas about music. In many ways, the art of combining multiple melodies is the crowning glory of the Western musical tradition.
I could many diverse influences in my work: though I did not understand it for many years, there are clear connections to my family’s Appalachian roots and origins, and probably to folksongs that came with those people from the British Isles.
Elements that many would associate with repetitive Minimalism play a big part in my work: small units that are repeated, often essentially unchanged, against other isolated units. Rather than Minimalist, I think of these textures as “mechanistic.’ While many composers have pictured the modern world in harsh chaos, I offer a different picture: angular textures, complexity built from the interaction of many simple units, and repetition of patterns. Setting these mechanistic sections against more organic texture is a key element of my compositional approach.
My harmonic language is essentially tonal, though far-ranging at times. We cannot un-ring a bell; modern ears have heard things that were unthinkable for early generations. As I write this, I’m sitting in a major city listening to jack hammers on the street; the sheer volume of that mechanical sound would have been completely foreign to anyone a few hundred years ago. In addition, we’ve heard music by Bartok, Messiaen, those Second Viennese School guys, Jimi Hendrix, late Miles Davis—any composition approach that does not pick up those threads seems, at least to me, to be meaningless pastiche.
Above all, I think composers today are in a privileged position to learn from 20th century Art music, pop music, and the folk musics of the world. This points me toward a language that I hope will resonate with my listeners and fellow musicians.